We, of little faith

This sermon was prepared for the Trinity United Church, Montréal’s for Sunday, October 15th, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6,19-23 (Year A, Proper 23).

This Exodus story always reminds me of Peter, who, on seeing Jesus walking on water jumps out of the boat, rushing towards him.

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”[i]

Anyone who has felt bold enough to get on an especially steep roller coaster or an especially long zip-line, and then immediately regrets that decision when faced with the drop, knows what I mean.

When everything is going well, it is so easy to have faith. There’s nothing at risk, everything is good. The line looks sturdy enough…the cars will stop at the red light…it’s a safe bet…. We make countless decisions in our life based on the fact that we, more than trust, the outcome—we are darn sure of what it’ll be.

But, it’s an entirely different matter when what’s important to us is at risk.

It’s in those times when we can’t see or feel something secure, where there isn’t anything that seems sturdy enough to rely on when we really have to bring out our faith and see if it’s enough.

I had the privilege of working as a chaplain at the Halifax Infirmary this past summer, and I talked with patients and families about this exact issue. In crisis, we see what our faith is made of, and sometimes it isn’t enough to get us through hard times.

When senseless violence takes place, or an unexpected diagnosis comes our way, our beliefs can get rocked. Because what we’re living doesn’t match up with how we’ve seen the world so far—the story doesn’t fit anymore.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

The people in Exodus had been very patient. I know they often seem whiney when we read their stories, but we also know how it will all work out in the end. They don’t.

Here they are, in the middle of nowhere, alone and scared. We’ve read how they left an oppressive, but somewhat comfortable place, to follow this crazy man into the wilderness, where they’ll wander around in literal circles with the hope of reaching a “promised land”.

They left behind a life of “certainty”, not a great life but a certain one, for a future based on hope. Where we’re reading today, that hope has yet to be fulfilled. Instead, they got a bunch of rules, at Mount Sinai, and their leader, who wandered up the mountain to talk to this new unfamiliar God and has left them all alone with no more instructions.

So, in the face of uncertainty and discomfort, they revert back to what they know best—they go to the second-in-command, Aaron, and they say, “Look, buddy, Moses left us high and dry, and we need something. Something to believe in.” So, Aaron makes them a god, not unlike other gods they would have come across—something familiar and safe to believe in.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

I have met people who put their faith in the power of medicine, the hands of doctors, the power of prayer, of nature, and the power of their own minds. Some of these folks are able to articulate this clearly and easily, and others might not have used the language I’m using, but they spoke about hopes and certainties.

I have met people who have regurgitated things they thought they were supposed to have faith in. But, were filled with fear and dread, because those ideas, of the world and of God, weren’t strong enough, or real enough to bring them peace.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

I would love to tell you, that when I’m faced with crisis I meet it with total confidence in God’s goodness. No doubts, just total unquestioning dependence on God. But that would be a bold-faced lie.

My faith has been tested, and will likely be tested again, by the circumstances of my life. And, I’m not ashamed to say that at times my faith has been found wanting. At other times, there have been parts of it that have held fast—that have held me up. These are what I call my life preservers.

Life preservers are the little snippets of belief that have always stayed with me—the stuff that works. When I’m struggling I try to reflect on who I truly believe God is and what I see God doing in my life. Then, I try to weed out all the stuff that doesn’t mesh with God’s character as I’ve seen it in our scriptures, our communal tradition, and in my own life.

Even if someone has spent my entire life trying to convince me otherwise.

There’s a really fancy word for this type of work, and it’s constructive theology—it’s very “in” right now so you may hear different writers and ministers talking about it. But, it just means you’ve thought about who God is and whether other parts of your belief system align with that. It’s about finding a way of talking about God that is consistent with God’s character as revealed to us.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

Our faith, is made up of the things that we sincerely believe are important or true. And, it informs the way we live. How we make moral choices. Our personal and work ethics. Our faith sets the stage for how we receive the wonders and tragedies of our lives.

Sometimes we find ourselves repeating lines, like platitudes, even though we might not believe them.

God never gives you more than you can handle.

God must just be testing you.

God just wants to teach you a lesson.

But, are these ideas consistent with the God we know from scripture and personal experience? What has your experience taught you about who God is and isn’t.

All that reflection is the work of theology—you’re all theologians when you reflect on the character of God. And know, doubting and questioning is what we’re built to do. We see countless stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament showing our ancestors in the faith doing just that.

Jesus said to Peter, “Why did you doubt?” I love that question because he’s calling him into self-reflection. He’s asking him about where the fear came from, what about his beliefs wasn’t enough to hold him up.

When you’re in crisis, and your stomach drops, what are those things you struggle to believe in? And, what has your experience taught you about who God is? Is there a disconnect there?

And, what are your life preservers? The ideas that support you in difficult times? What keeps calling you back to God? Do you always come back to God’s love, God’s grace, or God’s compassion?

For me, I always hear a call back to peace. That has been a defining experience in my journey—Christ, for me, will always first and foremost be the Prince of Peace, the nonviolent revolutionary, the God of the Sabbath Day.

I invite you to take a few moments to reflect, for yourself, on who God is. And, do so knowing that God, and Jesus the Anointed, are big enough to handle all of our doubts, all of our questions—waiting, as ever, to reveal their character more fully to us.

Amen.

[i] Matt. 14:30-31, NRSV

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More Than You Can Handle // Suffering & Faith

As some of you know I’m currently working on a unit of the Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer. I have the privilege of visiting with patients in Halifax, learning from some amazing spiritual care providers, and doing a lot of reflection. This piece has come out of a number of conversations I’ve had with very similar themes. So, without further ado, let’s talk about suffering and faith.

There is a harmful adage that has been floating around forever, and it goes as follows:

God will never give you more than you can handle.

I was visiting with a patient in the hospital who parroted that to me when we were talking about how overwhelming her diagnosis was. I asked her “Do you really believe that?” She stopped for a moment and laughed, she said: “No, I don’t”. I told her “I don’t either. I think that’s bullshit, frankly.” We both laughed together at that, and she turned to her roommate, who sat in his chair by the bed next to her, saying, “I like this girl.”

I have a whole list of problems with this adage, which I believe promotes just plain-old bad theology. Some of them I’d like to share with you.

God gives you the suffering, pain, heartache and horrors that you need to endure.

How did we get from the God of love to this god? A god that doles out horrors to his children? Who is this abusive, vengeful God who punishes? It seems so inconsistent with the parent Jesus speaks of.

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit[f] to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13, NRSV)

The pain you’re experiencing should, and can, be endured.

This particular part makes me furious and leads to comments from others about how weak someone’s faith must be if they are overwhelmed. As if God did not hear the cries of the afflicted. As if God did not see fit to end people’s suffering because it was too much.

Part of the reason why folks end their lives, why they kill themselves, is because they are trapped in worlds they cannot endure. The same goes for self-medication and other escapist coping strategies. By believing this adage we minimise the suffering of others, trivialise their experiences, by claiming that the situation–one that is not our own–was endurable.

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When we quip about “all things being possible” through God, we seem to forget that Jesus, in Matthew, was speaking about how we are able to enter into the sovereignty of God despite our humanity (Matt. 19:16-30). This wasn’t a teaching on suffering quietly, but one about people who claim piety. It is not a call to suffer unbearable pain happily, but for those who live in privilege to truly sacrifice in the name of God’s vision for creation.

The fact of the matter is, people across the globe are given more than they can handle. Earnest people of faith across the globe are given more than they can handle.

Hearts fail. Lives are taken. Minds break under the weight of trauma.

So, let’s stop trivialising, minimising and erasing the very real experiences of people–ordinary people–who are suffering. Let’s stop using grotesque clichés that warp our theology and lead us to victim blaming.

Instead, let us respond to one another in kind. As reflections of the God of steadfast loving kindness. A god who does not bring suffering, but comfort to the afflicted, and rest to the weary. Let us be God’s hands and feet, helping to alleviate the suffering of others; offering our companionship so that they not to carry their burdens alone.

Amen.

Persistent Voices // You are Loved, You are Loved, You are not Alone

As I write this post I am at home resting after an unpleasant Stress Reaction I experienced at my work. And, it occurs to me, after the tragic death of Robin Williams a few weeks ago, that so many of us in North America experience depression, stress, and anxiety. It seems so commonplace, so very sad but not surprising.

Since I was very young there has been a small morbid voice in the back of my head that has persistently told me there is an easy way of escaping all of my pain. Normally I would chalk it all up to my over-active imagination which has always been rich like that of Edgar Allen Poe’s, but as I have matured I am very aware that though often quiet this voice becomes infuriatingly loud when I am at my weakest.

The loudest it has ever screamed was when my mother was ill and after her death, and when I lost my job the beginning of this year. It would come all hours of the day, at the most obscure moments, beckoning me, assailing me, and hammering my heart in what I will describe as pure betrayal. Betrayal because it was self-hatred bred out of loneliness and exhaustion–the greatest reflections of my stress and anxiety.

The world is a difficult place to live, especially when you are feeling alone. My anxiety’s favourite game is to tell me I am all alone, and that nothing I do is ever enough. It’s difficult to talk about because it is embarrassing, yet in the past two years I have met so many people who have a similar voice–all of them know how exhausting it can be trying to quiet the scream that says: there is an easier way.

All that to say, there is a series of voices I have been fortunate enough to hear, and these are the voices that work to drown out my depression, stress, and anxiety. I often worry that one day I won’t be strong enough to resist the dark persistent voice, but it is the voices of people who love me that engulf me when it all seems like too much. They scream: you are loved, you are loved, you are not alone.

My husband recently returned from the CLAY (Canadian Lutheran and Anglican Youth) 2014 gathering in Kamloops, the theme of which was “Worth It”. Since his return, it seems that the phrase has become the motto for our household. This is the epicenter of those voices that scream: you are loved. When they say “you are loved” they are saying “you are worth loving, you are worth knowing, you are valued and valuable.” They satisfy the persistent voice of betrayal by insisting you are not worth betraying.

Today that little persistent voice said to me: you are failing, you are falling. And, it caused me to do just that, it caused me to break down into a blob of stress. But, after driving me home, in all my dizziness and anxiety, my husband said to me: you are worth it.

I am worth loving, and knowing, and working with, and waiting for.

I am not stuck or lost or failing or falling.

I am struggling, pursuing and gaining ground every day.

It is okay that I feel exhausted, that I need to take a break and remember to breathe because I am one little human working hard at her life. One little human wading through all of her anxieties, hang-ups, problems and issues.

Today wasn’t great but I am, in a very exhausted way, happy to say that the most persistent voice I heard was a voice telling me: you are loved, you are loved, you are not alone. That is the voice of the Divine, heard through my husband’s low grumbly tone. A voice telling us we were, and we are, worth every moment–a voice we heard in the stories of ancestors in faith–the voice of a pursuer, of a persistence, of a jealous and vibrant God saying: you are loved, you are loved, you are not alone.